Quick Review: Two Books on Mind-Altering Herbs

My house holds several shelves of herb books, thanks to M.’s interest in herbalism, some of which rubs off on me.

Lots of them are not relevant to our ecosystem, but we keep them for one little bit or another.  Of the best, my favorites include Charles Kane’s Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest, although it leans more to the Sonoran desert than the southern Rockies, and the late Michael Moore’s various works of herbalism and ethnobotany.  (Others by Kane here.)

One thing this reading did for me is make me sensitive to which writers have gotten their hands dirty, so to speak, and which are just recycling.

I would put Kenaz Filan’s The Power of the Poppy: Harnessing Nature’s Most Dangerous Plant Ally in the first category and Steve Andrews’ Herbs of the Northern Shaman: A Guide to Mind-Altering Plants from the Northern Hemisphere, sadly, in the second.

I have a real negative reaction to phrases such as “is thought to contain tryptamine”  or “has been reported to have been used in the berserker frenzies of the Viking tribes” or to borrowing from dear old Maud Grieve, who was indeed a leading herbalist of the early twentieth century, but has no one learned anything since?

Unfortunately, Herbs of the Northern Shaman is full of that kind of bluster that promises more than it delivers.

Some sentences are completely confused: “Further to all these uses the Thorn Apple was a hallucinogen that ancient Greek priests employed as an oracle” (118). Presumably, the priest, not the plant, was the oracle, but if he employed Datura (thorn apple) as an entheogen, how was it done? And where and when and in what god’s service were these priests?

You won’t learn that here. Herbs of the Northern Shamanism is too elementary to be a solid  historical work and too vague to be useful to the hands-on herbalist. It offers precious little about cultivation, preparation, or dosage. And for a book with “Shaman” in the title, it has little solid to say about the entheogenic uses of plants except for bland references to other peoples in other places. You would get much more at Erowid.org.

Open The Power of the Poppy, by contrast, and you will find a solid, documented history of humankind’s various interactions with Papaver somniferum, both the plant itself, its chemical constituents (heroin, morphine, etc.), and its synthetic imitations. Filan can write several interesting pages just on the history and development of the hypodermic syringe:

The hypodermic quickly became a status symbol among physicians, a sign that they had the finest and most modern medical equipment at their disposal [in the late 19th century]. Wealthy clients learned how to inject themselves or trained their servants in the technique . . . .  The 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog feature hypodermic kits (a syringe, two vials of cocaine or morphine, two needles, and a carrying vase) for$1.50. (255)

The chapter on cultivation is basic but accurate enough, but the payoff is the chapters on dependence, tolerance, and getting clean.

Finally, if shamanism is partly about relationships with the other-than-human world, you will find that here too. It is not merely a literary device to write, “Poppy wants to alter your consciousness; that is one of the major means by which she encourages human cultivation  . . . . But be advised that Poppy has her own best interests at heart, not yours. We may believe that Poppy is a tool that suits our purposes. Be advised that Poppy feels the same way about us” (276).

5 thoughts on “Quick Review: Two Books on Mind-Altering Herbs

  1. This is the reason I keep coming back here. Relevance w/o recycling.

    I have been working so doggedly on the Alaskan flora in recent years, I have neglected the plants of this area. You must have read my mind b/c I was gearing up to find some plantlore books for the Southwest (especially since the fungi are so elusive out here). Perfect! Thank you for the Kane links. Any other Great Basin/Southwest suggestions? Please do tell if you have a moment.

    1. Depending on your ecosystem and altitude, I would start with Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West or his Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Amazon links to used copies of both.

  2. Thanks for the heads up about the Andrews book. While I hadn’t come across it, I’m sure I would have eventually and it would have piqued my interest. But it sounds pretty useless. I assume that reference beserker frenzies was regarding Amanita muscaria, and if he hasn’t even done enough research (and experience) to learn how unfounded that theory is, it’s not worth my time to read.

  3. Pingback: Magickal-Media News » Blog Archive » News for Pagans, Friday, 4-20-12

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